In the old city of Mosul, the regime of the Islamic State group is reminiscent of the horrors of not long ago. There are reminders on every block: houses bombed, piles of rubble and families toiling daily, just to survive.
Sahara Mahmood, mother of 11 children, says, “An IS family lived there. “And another house over there. So they bombed those houses directly.”
“Family?” I ask It is strange for anyone living in Mosul to even remotely apologize for the deaths of IS fighters.
“There were kids there,” she says.
It has been more than four years since IS was driven out of Mosul, and the prospect that the group could re-emerge and recapture seems far-fetched to many Iraqis. But here in the old town, they are careful. Some say the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has put them on edge, erasing memories they wish they could forget.
In other parts of the city, and in the distant Iraqi capital, Baghdad, locals say the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan gave them a signal: America is no longer interested in policing the region.
For some, this is a good thing, and they welcome the US plan to end combat missions in Iraq this year. But others, including Warka Talib, a mother of five in the old city, fear IS will be buoyed by the move and attempt to reclaim towns and cities held between 2014 and 2017.
“It’s 50/50 that they’ll be back,” Talib says, sticking his head out the door of his house.
From the outside, it appears that much of his home was rebuilt, as the neighborhood was crushed by international coalition airstrikes that rained down on IS fighters in the old city in 2017. But, she tells us, the repairs on the outside are mostly superficial, only partially easing the post-war stress on her family.
“If you look inside,” she insists, “you’ll see that we have nothing.”
Will the dark days return?
School administrators say that across the city, the lush University of Mosul campus has been largely rebuilt after the war destroyed 80% of its buildings.
Complexity is a study in contrasts. A hostel laden with bullets and a closed parking lot littered with dilapidated street lights are neglected, while, nearby, there is a grand new library and a cafeteria painted with murals in a meticulously maintained garden.
The students here are more convinced than the residents of the old city that the days of IS rule are over, citing the group’s general hatred of the masses and apparent determination to prevent a resurgence of national security forces. But medical students Ibrahim Saddam and Omar Ahmed say it was shocking to see the Taliban taking control of Kabul on TV.
“Exactly like what happened here in 2014,” Saddam laughs nervously. left in the hands of
During IS’s rule, Saddam lived near the oil fields of Qayyarah, a town south of Mosul where militants often set fire to fields, supposedly to protect his position from coalition airstrikes.
The sky over Kayyara turned black, and many locals, with dark spots on their skin and clothes, started coughing. “There was a time when we didn’t see the sun for six months,” says Saddam.
Saddam says those dark days are unlikely to return unless elements of Iraq’s currently fragile peace change drastically.
But, he says, the US decline may be related to reasons unrelated to IS. The troops are expected to remain in an advisory role, but what this will mean for security in Iraq is unclear.
Seeing this incident, both the youths have a break. Ahmed argues that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be compared to Iraq. While the Taliban were ready to back the US, IS has been hiding for most of the years.
More likely, Ahmed says, the US decline could increase Iran’s power inside Iraq’s borders. Both Iran and the US greatly influence local and national politics in Iraq. And in Iraq’s sectarian landscape, if Iran has more power, then Shia political leaders and militias as well, which is not seen as a good outcome in Sunni-majority Mosul.
“No,” said Ahmed, shaking his head. “It won’t be safe for us if America withdraws.”
In Baghdad, about 400 kilometers south, many locals are more optimistic about America’s decline, with reactions ranging from relief to annoyance. Some are concerned about the return of IS.
“It confirms what we’ve always known,” says Mushrik al-Friji, an activist-turned-politician who leads the Taking My Rights movement. “America doesn’t care about the countries it’s occupying. If they leave, let them go.”
Many others tell us that the country is now protected by a huge semi-regular group known as the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), or Hashd Shaabi. Originally an informal collection of mostly Shia volunteer fighters, the PMF was added to the Iraqi state security system in recent years after playing a major role in defeating IS.
In Mosul, residents are hesitant to ask if the PMF will protect them from IS. The group is already believed to have considerable power in Mosul, where Shia fighters are often seen as external and potential threats.
But at the university, Amina and Ayesha, communications students, say that living under IS rule was more terrifying than living under any government army today.
As a teenage girl under IS rule, Amina says, she was forced to wear a burqa in the street and could only go out with a male escort. She says she sympathizes with women and girls in Afghanistan who now face similar sanctions. But, she adds, under the IS regime, she was more concerned about security than repressive regulations.
“I was more concerned about my family’s survival than anything else,” she says.